Murdered filmaker Theo van Gogh was both an outspoken proponent and exponent of free expression — whatever the consequences — who consciously courted controversy. (04-NOV-04)

Although the motives of the killer are still not officially known, it´s assumed that Dutch filmmaker and journalist Theo van Gogh, shot dead in the street on 2 November in Amsterdam, died for his angry opinions on Islam and integration.

The murder echoes the killing of controversial political figure Pim Fortuyn in May 2002. And as with that killing, van Gogh´s murder raises questions about the consequences for free expression in the Netherlands.

Theo van Gogh, a descendant of the 19th century artist, was shot and stabbed outside a council office in the city. A note bearing Islamic texts was left on his corpse. A 26-year-old man with dual Dutch-Moroccan nationality was subsequently arrested after a gun battle with police.

People of Moroccan Muslim descent make up the largest single ethnic minority group in the Netherlands and their representatives had been on the frontline in van Gogh´s frequently harsh war of words on extremist Islam.

This war reached a height with the recent broadcast on Dutch TV of his short film ´Submission´, a film demonstrating van Gogh´s view of Muslim treatment of women. ´Submission´ told the fictional story of a Muslim woman forced into a violent marriage, raped by a relative and brutally punished for adultery.

It featured actresses portraying abused Muslim women, naked under transparent Islamic-style shawls, their bodies marked with texts from the Koran that supposedly justify the repression of females.

Co-produced by the Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an activist of Somali origin who has blamed Islamists for fostering repression and domestic violence in the Netherlands´ immigrant communities, the film provoked an outcry. Both Hirsi Ali and van Gogh received death threats.

Van Gogh had dismissed the death threats in recent media interviews. He had argued that he was not seen as a significant target, and was seen as a kind of ´village fool´ rather than a serious enemy by his critics. A well-regarded journalist and interviewer and sometime actor, he has twice won the country´s most prestigious film award.

Three years ago he had a hit with his low-budget TV adaptation of Shakespeare´s Romeo and Juliet, entitled ´Najib & Julia´, in which the star-crossed lovers came from poor Moroccan migrant stock and the Dutch upper class respectively.

Van Gogh was also popular and notorious newspaper columnist who had argued that Islamic culture contradicted Dutch culture and endangered Dutch values, consciously echoing Fortuyn, the maverick anti-immigration campaigner whose murder plunged the country into political crisis.

By the time of his death Van Gogh was perhaps the country´s most ardent defender of freedom of expression. Last year he told his friend and editor Theodor Holman that free speech in the Netherlands was being curtailed by men of violence.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende called Van Gogh ´a remarkable defender of the free word´. But fearful of retaliatory attacks on Moroccan minorities, he appealed to the public not to jump to conclusions about the killers´ motive while his interior minister called for ´cool heads´ to avoid clashes.

Dutch-Moroccan organisations all strongly condemned the murder. ‘Somebody who kills a person because of his statements and opinions does not know anything about the Koran or Islam. This cowardly deed was done by an individual who does not even respect the holy month of Ramadan,’ said Abdel Allawi of the website forum. 

‘Again as a group we will need to prove that we are not radical fundamentalists but just normal Muslims who prefer to live in peace here in the Netherlands. We definitely don´t need more tensions.’ A colleague added: ´There are many young Dutch-Moroccans who loved to have the opportunity to go into debate with van Gogh. With this terrible murder this chance has been taken away from us.’

Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen backed a call for an impromptu protest on the city´s main street, the Dam, on the night of van Gogh´s death. But not to hold a minute of silence, he said, as this would not be in keeping with van Gogh´s style.

Cohen urged everybody to make as much noise as they can, ‘to express as loud as possible that freedom of expression is our dearest possession. We don´t want silence but noise. What happens here cannot happen in the Netherlands. And definitely not in a city like Amsterdam, a city famous for its freedom of expression and for that reason a city where Theo van Gogh belonged.’


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